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Small world: Sarah Barrell

If you plan on seeing the world, forget Facebook, turn off the tweets, and stick a pin in the map — it’s the only way to stop bumping into your clone

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I’m eyeballing some supersize oysters in a New Zealand restaurant. Over 11,000 miles from London, I find myself musing on the innocuous strangeness of being on the other side of the planet. Bonkers-big bivalves aside, things look familiar. And yet they’re a world apart. The Oyster Inn, on the island of Waiheke, is about as far from home as I can get, and just as I’m contemplating this beautiful estrangement, the manager pops over for a chat. He mentions he used to work in London, says his name, and I blink in dim recognition before realising he was, for many years, the boss of my oldest friend from school.

The next 10 minutes are spent exchanging names and news, and I’m handed a heartfelt note for his former employee. I may be over 11,000 miles from London, yet suddenly the world feels a mind-warpingly small place.

The ‘six degrees of separation’ theory goes some way towards explaining this seemingly freakish global connectivity. The idea that everyone on the planet is half-a-dozen or fewer acquaintances away from any other person has us picturing ourselves practically on nodding terms with a Masai herdsman, a Monte Carlo millionaire or Jarvis Cocker (that last one might just be me).

Just like the ‘butterfly effect’ (even tiny events have wide-ranging consequences), ‘six degrees’ makes the world seem simultaneously vast and human-sized; chaotic and poetically measured. It can’t fail to capture the imagination. But is it any more than just a pretty idea?

Years ago in Bali, I bumped into my childhood sweetheart, the first friend I ever made at university and a mate from Australia… in one afternoon. The boy — now a strapping six-footer with multiple tattoos — I hadn’t seen in well over a decade; the uni friend, several years. It was the height of monsoon season and the island was in the clutches of a rib-shaking storm. As lightening lashed the palms, the ubiquitous groups of stray dogs ran for cover. This apocalyptic backdrop only added to the creeping fear I was the victim of an ominous shift in the time-space continuum. But in the cool light of the post-storm, I realised these nostalgic encounters were merely a sign I’d joined the same narrow, budget hostel-dotted trail traversed by the rest of the Lonely Planet banana pancake brigade. A far less complex cause-and-effect scenario than the one suggested by either the butterfly or six-degrees theory.

In fact, now some years have passed, I feel well qualified to refine my original explanation with a more scientific hypothesis of my own: Three Degrees of Travel Repetition. It aims to show that when we travel, rather than being six steps from the most exotic person in the world, we’re no more than three short steps from someone almost identical to ourselves.

Most of us like to believe we travel to expand our horizons, but are we in fact travelling in ever decreasing circles, leading us back to one other? Whether we’re a Benidorm booze-hound or an Alpine trekker, we all tend towards a travel ‘type’; a tribe member who explores the world following recommendations from friends, guidebooks and social media sites.

Today, the paths carved by travellers are increasingly niche, aided and abetted by Facebook and Twitter: the ‘if you like this, try this’ culture. We travel the globe in little pockets, safe in the knowledge our destination choices get peer group approval, if not envy. There’s a certain smug satisfaction knowing your hotel check-in has a Facebook thumbs up, your sunset snap an Instagram emoji of envy, and that your post about the latest must-dine restaurant has elicited a drool across your Twitter feed.

As we follow the latest ‘must see’ recommendation, are we really doing anything more than congratulating ourselves on being paragons of travel taste? We’re hardly pioneers. There’s surely something to be said for simply sticking a pin in a map, packing a bag and setting off. Otherwise, if the world really is our oyster, might we all be missing the pearl?

Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)